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Farmers Scramble For Solutions To California’s Water Shortage

March 13, 2009

In the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the most productive agriculture region anywhere in the world, almond farmer Marvin Meyers has moved into water banking.

Meyers, who grows 8 million pounds of almonds for companies such as Hershey, bought land to collect water during wet years and recharge an aquifer.  The water authority then uses this supply for neighboring farmers, crediting Meyers to irrigate from a canal 15 miles away from his orchard.

The move has cost Meyers $7 million and plenty of hassles along the way, but he is now the envy of farmers throughout the valley who are now facing a third year of drought, water cutbacks and billions of dollars in losses.

Indeed, the worse may be yet to come as global climate change leads to lengthier droughts and dwindling mountain snowpacks that now provide a steady supply of water to the region.

Nevertheless, if the current drought persists for another three years, Meyers’s “bank of last resort” will run dry.

“I do all I can, but really it is just Band-Aid farming,” Meyers said during an interview with Reuters.

His “Band-Aid” is a clear indication of just how fragile the water future is for California’s $35 billion agriculture industry.  The state is the source of half the fruit, vegetables and nuts sold in the U.S., 80 percent of the world’s almonds and one-third of its canned tomatoes.

If the region’s farmers can’t learn to thrive with less water and create infrastructure to capture more, the economic impact will be significant.
And while farming accounts for just 2 percent of California’s economy, its demand for equipment, transport and other services bolsters wide swaths of the nation’s economy.

Last month, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency, with state officials saying as many as 95,000 agricultural jobs would be eliminated.  Total economic losses could reach $3 billion.  And up to 1 million acres, one-third the area normally irrigated with federally supplied water, will now be left uncultivated.

The parched San Joaquin Valley will be hardest hit, since crops there rely on water that travels hundreds of miles from the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains.  However, farmers throughout the state now face difficult choices.

Some are trimming trees back to stumps and keeping the roots alive with minimal water, while others are simply letting older trees die.  And Row crops such as tomatoes and lettuce will not be planted without water.

“I am third generation and I have a nephew and a son,” San Joaquin almond farmer Mike Wood, 53, told Reuters.
“Frankly, I don’t believe it will be here when they are ready to go.”

The crisis may ultimately bring together warring parties that have long battled on water issues — farmers, government, cities, taxpayers and environmentalists — to plan a future that allows the state to maintain its agricultural dominance.

“If you look at California, things happen with crisis and we are in one right now,” a Reuters report quoted Richard Howitt, a resource economist at the University of California, as saying.

While California’s farmers have faced droughts before, such as those that occurred during the late 1970s and early 1990s, this year they are now experiencing what they call “the man-made drought” — restrictions on the amount of water they can pump from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, put in place to protect a fish species, the delta smelt.

The once-robust water infrastructure is now old and insufficient, with new canals and storage facilities decades away from completion.  Meanwhile, the state’s population may double by 2050, generating even bigger water conflicts between cities and farms.

However, with such troublesome short-term challenges, few can contemplate the longer-term impact of climate change.  

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has cautioned that climate change could melt the Sierra snowpack, wiping out the state’s agriculture industry by the end of the century.

“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” Chu said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in February.
“We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

Some wonder whether the state’s enormous agriculture industry should have been allowed to grow in the first place. California’s San Joaquin

Valley, 60 percent of the state’s prime farmland, receives very little rain, and pioneers pumped out the majority of its groundwater generations ago.

However, massive dams built in the 1930s and the California Aqueduct canal system constructed in the 1960s allowed the valley to harness its rich soil and Mediterranean climate. Successful farms attracted industry, such as tomato processing plants that move 11 million tons per year, double the output of Italy.

However, farmers struggle with the perception that they have squandered the state’s water, and have exceeded California’s hydrological means.
Farming now uses 80 percent of California’s water, half in inefficient flood irrigation, while cities get the rest, according to the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.

“Agriculture can no longer own the water of California without drastically changing their practices or water is not going to be available for people, for cities, for industry,” Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke told Reuters.

San Joaquin Valley farmers argue that environmentalists ignore their progress in smart irrigation and conservation.  Drip and sprinkle irrigation is ubiquitous in parts of Fresno County, which leads the nation in farm production.  They also point to reductions in water-intensive crops like rice or cotton in favor of fruits, vegetables and nuts that use water more efficiently.  Cotton now covers just 20 percent of the total acreage it once did in the past.

“The Westside farmer is the most refined, high-tech irrigator there is,” said Meyers.

“We don’t waste a drop.”

Still, the water think tank Pacific Institute says farmers can still improve.

“It’s ironic because I do a lot of international water work and there’s no other place on the planet where, in my opinion, the agricultural sector is so insistent that they can’t do better,” the institute’s president, Peter Gleick, told Reuters.

But farmers and state government officials agree that infrastructure rather than conservation is ultimately the key to their future.   They both seek a “peripheral canal” built around the delta that can deliver water without violating pumping restrictions for fish conservation.

“We have to look at the things we can invest in at the state level that give us more predictability of a water supply that is deliverable, has high quality and protects the environment,” said A.G. Kawamura, the state’s agriculture secretary, in an interview with Reuters.

The region’s large, remote dams of the past offer no solution for the current water shortage.

However, re-directing precipitation toward depleted aquifers, as Meyers is doing on a small scale, can help generate water reserves for times of drought.  

Regions that in the past had competed for water are now working together to regenerate common supplies.

And despite all the bad news, Howitt says he remains “unfashionably slightly optimistic.”

The answer may come by moving towards higher value crops.

“We can downsize in land area and water use, but because we grow crops that wealthier people like to eat, we can actually offset much of this downsizing by expanding the fruits, nuts and vegetables,” he said.

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